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Friday, November 6, 2015

Sargent

Sargent's on the 1915 USGS survey map.
Unlike so many stops along the Southern Pacific Railroad's Coast Division, Sargent Station has been there since the beginning. The area began life in 1835 as Rancho Juristac, a 4,500 acre Mexican land grant owned by Antonio and Faustino German. Even in its earliest days, it was known for its oil field, which gave the land the nickname La Brea. In 1856, James P. Sargent, a New Hampshirite, along with his brothers Jacob, Roswell, and Bradley, purchased Rancho Juristac, renaming it Sargent's Ranch. By the time the property was confirmed by the California Public Land Commission in 1871, railroad tracks were already terminated beside the conveniently-named Sargent's Station. For the next three decades, this would be the stop that people detrained from for the six-mile stagecoach ride to San Juan Bautista.

Throughout much of its life, Sargent's served a triple purpose: it was an oil site requiring tanker cars to regularly haul out oil of various types, it was a sugar-beet plantation requiring regular shipments of beets to Watsonville and Spreckels, and it was a local passenger and freight station servicing the locals that lived on and around Sargent Ranch. To support the station, a siding was added which slowly extended in length until it reached a maximum extent of approximately 2,000 feet. By 1937, a double-track was extended from Gilroy and terminated just south of Sargent's. The station included a full passenger and freight office, telephone service, a class-A freight platform and beet-loading equipment, a train order register, and a water tower.

Firstly, oil had been known to be on the property since Mexican times and in the mid-1860s the first test wells were drilled in the hills over the Pajaro River. By the early 1870s, a number of wells on Sargent's Ranch were producing black gold, making the property quite valuable to its owners. In 1906, harder asphaltic oil (tar) was found in the soil and became a staple export for many years with over 780,000 barrels of assorted types of oil shipped out of the station making it the most profitable oil field in the Bay Area. In 1883, gold and silver was even discovered on the property, although not in significant enough quantities to warrant extensive extraction. Oil continued to be extracted from the ranch into the 1940s, with the last well closing in 1948

Secondly, the sugar-beet empire of Claus Spreckels spread up the San Juan Valley ending around Sargent, where the family and its tenants grew large crops of beets beginning in the early 1900s. This industry continued, albeit not through Spreckels, well into the 1950s and perhaps as late as the 1970s.

A structure at Sargent's, possibly showing the station although this building does not reflect the design of other Southern Pacific structures in the region. (Sargent Quarry)
Finally, the size of the station and the ranch, as well as its proximity to the river, made it an ideal vacation spot. Besides the locals who used the station regularly for transport and freight, visitors came regularly in the summer months to enjoy the beautiful ranch property. A small town located around the station supported both a hotel and a saloon, and there was an open-air dance pavilion for picnic parties. The area also supported hunting of all types and the nearby river was a popular fishing spot for vacationers.

The beet-loading tower sitting beside the abandoned spur at Sargent.
Threats to remove Sargent from railroad timetables date to as early as 1905 when Betabel was slated to be the new beet-gathering hub, but plans failed when the San Juan Pacific Railway made Betabel redundant. The station remained and grew over the years, with sugar-beets taking over as the primary good shipped out of the site. When precisely this product ceased being shipped from there is not known, but relics of the old beet conveyors still remain at the station site today.  The station almost became a hub for a branch line that would pass through Pacheco Pass in 1907, but plans for the route fell through. In 1908, the agency permanently closed down, although passenger and freight service was still permitted so long that it was prepaid. After petitions to the government, the post office was allowed to remain opened however, meaning that passengers still had a waiting area for trains. The Spreckels Sugar Company, Watsonville Oil Company and Sargent Estate all were also allowed to operate out of the station structure for many more years. In October 1942, the station structure was finally torn down.

The Sargent family continued to maintain the property until 1956 when the last member of the family died. Attempts to develop the property failed many times before the property was transferred to a debt-collection agency. The majority of the property is now used for cattle grazing and hay farming, although there is a proposal by Sargent Quarry to repurpose a corner of it for gravel quarrying.

Official Railroad Information:
Sargent's first appeared in railroad timetables as early as 1869 as the terminus of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Extension of the line began the following year. By 1899, the stop had a freight and passenger agency office, a class A freight platform, telegraph services, and a four-car siding (~125 feet). The station was located 87.1 miles from San Francisco via San José. By 1937, the double-track from Gilroy terminated just south of Sargent (the "s" being removed from the name) while the spur had become a nearly 4,000-foot-long siding. A water tower was also now at the site while telegraph services were replaced with telephone. A train-order registry was kept at the station house. Many services began to disappear by the mid-1950s with only phone service remaining as of 1963. The siding, however, had been lengthened to 4,500 feet, but the double-track, though still remaining, appears to have gone out of use at this time. As late as 1974 the station was still listed as an official freight stop with an active phone and 4,395-foot siding, but it seems the station structures themselves had gone out of use. Officially, the station remains in Union Pacific Railroad records, but evidence from the station suggests that the stop has long been abandoned and both the siding and second track are overgrown and disconnected from the main line.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
The tracks at Sargent with the oil field in the background.
36.923˚N, 121.547˚W

The site of Sargent Station is accessible via a rarely-used right turn off of State Route 101 just south of Tar Spring Creek where the highway passes over the railroad tracks. Taking the exit, immediately turn left to parallel the tracks. A short distance down the old cement road will reveal the ruins of the station site, with a loading ramp and three heavily-graffited structures still standing on the right immediately by the still-surviving triple tracks located there. While accessing the structures is probably not going to bother anybody, remain off the tracks—the track furthest from the station is still in active regular use by the Union Pacific Railroad.

Citations & Credits:
  • "History". Sargent Quarry.
  • Santa Cruz (Morning/Evening/Weekly) Sentinel, 1869 to 1956.

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